By Jeff Lytle
When you’re out for a walk and run into neighbors, the conversation likely includes tips on newfound Netflix or Prime Video shows.
Add jigsaw puzzles to the mix and ears really perk up.
Their retro popularity with folks who probably haven’t assembled one since childhood is surging amid the pandemic when we are eager for pleasant, time-consuming distractions.
Friends and neighbors with even a few puzzles on hand become brokers of fun, building little networks for puzzle swapping. Recipients guess the identity of the puzzle fairy who leaves one unexpectedly at the front door.
In mid-summer there was a retail scarcity, with factories struggling to keep up with demand three to 10 times higher than normal while work crews were deemed non-essential or pressed to keep social distancing.
Barnes & Noble at Pelican Bay reports selling any and all shipments the same day they arrive. Collier County Public Library fills some of the void, with loans on pace with a year ago – nearly 2,800 as of August — despite being closed for two months in the spring.
The public collection is based at the Naples branch, where there is a whole room filled with puzzles, like books on shelves.
Public services librarian Ken Hardcastle has even proctored a puzzle-building contest among three teams – with a puzzle as the prize.
Senior Library Supervisor Rosemary LaBarge delights in a story about adult students using the library as a study site. “About four of them gathered around the puzzle table, working from all angles. I mentioned to them that the puzzle was great teamwork project,” she says. “That’s when they told me they were really there to study, but couldn’t stop because they wanted to complete the puzzle.”
“We get many people who walk by our puzzles and will stop and try to put together a couple of pieces,” Hardcastle goes on. “It’s amazing to watch people of all ages and backgrounds come together, and they will let us know right away when one puzzle is finished and another one needs to go out. We even have puzzle connoisseurs who prefer one brand of puzzles over another.”
“You are correct in saying that they gained popularity during the pandemic,” adds Kristen Lieberth, a library assistant at Naples. “I have done a few puzzles since shelter-in-place started, and then have passed them on to other family members.”
There is an added bonus for her: “Keeping my hands busy with a puzzle at night keeps me from snacking, so I can ward off the Corona 15.”
- Brent Batten is known for solving different kinds of puzzles – about civic affairs – for readers of the Naples Daily News. “Puzzles served as a diversion during the quarantine days — something to take one’s mind off the otherwise depressing situation, a challenge, a sense of accomplishment upon completion or even upon finding a particular piece,” he writes. “It’s a good activity for the family to gather around and work on together.”
- Linda Penniman, former Naples City Council member, when asked if she puzzles, replies: “Oh heck yes! Have had one going most of the time since COVID!”
- When asked for comment, Naples Senior Center CEO Jackie Fafier says, “You are doing a very important story!“ When our physical doors are open we have a big table in the senior center where individuals, or a few seniors together, work on a jigsaw puzzle. Some spend a short amount of time, others longer. Ultimately, it is a group effort that completes the puzzle. “It is an exercise that enhances cognitive function, strengthens the fine motor skills in the hands, provides a sense of accomplishment, and most of all, it is fun!”
- One of the center’s puzzlers is Lucy Monico, who harkens back to childhood. “It relaxed and made me concentrate. The time flew by, just as it does now at the senior center –or did until the virus arrived.” She says it is common for friends to say they can stay for one more piece placement, then stay hours longer, or for someone to walk by and place pieces “without even looking at the picture on the box.” “I miss going to the center, as many others do,” Monico says, “and the companionship.”
A simple Google search turns up loads of news, trade and scientific publications. A sampling says puzzling (or dissectology):
Is good for short-term memory and skills used in driving and learning to dance.
Helps keep our minds off trouble to reduce anxiety and boost mental well-being. Part of that is from concentrating on a brightly colored, often nostalgic image – though puzzles today can be made from any image and even done online.
Unplugs us from news and social media data overload.
Soothes the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter, every time a piece is put into place, promoting optimism and confidence. One North Carolina medical company, Sanesco, says it leads to a meditative state that is good for life expectancy and avoiding dementia.
A toy company, Master Pieces, says it teaches children how things come together in life in general.
The health web site Medical Xpress sums it up: puzzlers relish the satisfaction of bringing order from chaos – an especially timely reward these days.